First the Good News, Hillary

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 29, 2007

If you harbor a sneaking suspicion that the 2008 campaign is all about Hillary, you're right.

Hillary Clinton has drawn nearly twice as much media coverage as any Republican presidential candidate, making her the dominant figure in the race. But that coverage is more negative than positive, a new study says, in part because the former first lady is such an object of revulsion on conservative talk radio.

In the first five months of the year, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 17 percent of the stories were about Clinton, followed by Barack Obama (14 percent), Rudy Giuliani (9 percent), John McCain (7 percent) and Mitt Romney (5 percent). Everyone else was a relative blip.

The two front-runners, Clinton and Giuliani, achieved a rough parity: 37 percent of the stories about them were negative and 27 percent positive, with the rest neutral.

Overall, though, the Democratic candidates drew more positive stories (35 percent) than the Republicans (26 percent). That, says the Washington-based research group -- which conducted the study with Harvard's Shorenstein Center -- was almost entirely due to the friendly coverage accorded Obama (47 percent positive) and the heavily negative treatment of McCain (12 percent positive).

The project examined coverage by newspapers (The Washington Post, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today and several smaller ones); network morning and evening broadcasts; cable news shows; radio programs, including those of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Ed Schultz; and such major Web sites as Yahoo and AOL.

The figures on some candidates are undoubtedly dated. In recent weeks, Obama, who trails Clinton by about 30 points, has been hammered by reporters for failing to attack his Democratic rival more aggressively. McCain, whose bid seemed to implode when his fundraising plummeted, has drawn praise for his feistier performances and uptick in opinion surveys.

And that gets to the heart of any analysis of political coverage. The positive and negative assessments have little to do with the candidates' stances on Iraq, health care or taxes, or even a rudimentary judgment on whether they would make a good president. Instead, the tone is a measure of their standing in the polls. When Obama was hot, reporters kept repeating the words "rock star" like a mantra; now that the Illinois senator is way behind, he is seen as badly out of tune.

"Once again, the media have a horse-race lens," says Tom Rosenstiel, the project's director. "The lens means that if you're doing better than expected, you get better coverage, quite apart from what you're proposing to do for the country, your record, your character."

ABC, for example, reported: "Shattering the record held by Al Gore when he ran for president, Senator Clinton raised $26 million over 10 weeks." NBC reported that "Rudy Giuliani had his stature lifted by 9/11 more than any American politician except for George W. Bush, and unlike Bush he's kept that advantage. He leads in some national polls."

On the negative side, a CBS anchor said that Clinton, in New Hampshire, "took it on the chin from some very hard-core antiwar Democrats. . . . There's almost nothing she can say to dig her out of the hole of having voted for the war." An NBC report said that "the question is whether 9/11 will be enough to overcome the social issues and Giuliani's two divorces and three marriages."

No shock here: 63 percent of the stories focused on political strategy and 17 percent on the candidates' backgrounds, compared with 15 percent on their proposals and 1 percent on their records. The remaining 4 percent dealt with miscellaneous topics.

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